After three trips to Asia as secretary of State, I am more convinced than ever that, as a Pacific power, the United States must continue to forge a Pacific future. But building that future means confronting challenges that require cooperation with our allies and perseverance with our adversaries.
Some of those challenges are related directly to our national security. We must work with Japan, South Korea and others to address the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea and the growing dangers of cyber espionage. We must cooperate with countries across the Asia-Pacific region to peacefully resolve rising territorial differences in the South China Sea. And we need to develop trade relationships that open these robust economies to more American goods and services.
At a time when some Americans would like to pull back from engagement abroad, it’s never been more important to work together globally to meet an array of challenges.
Unfortunately, I left for Asia earlier this month under the shadow of the government shutdown here at home. The transient difficulties in Washington, and the fact that those polarizing politics kept President Obama at home, did not diminish the recognition among the leaders with whom I spoke that the United States has a vital role to play in supporting peace and prosperity across the region.
Indeed, over the course of two weeks and four countries, I saw firsthand the depth of U.S. engagement, starting with enhancing the security architecture that we established decades ago and concluding with progress on an economic partnership that will yield lasting benefits for American workers in the decades to come.
Still, there are obstacles. One of them is finding the diplomatic means to persuade North Korea to live up to international norms. As part of solving that vexing riddle, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and I signed a historic agreement with our counterparts in Japan on Oct. 3 that strengthens our deep alliance. It commits the two countries to working together to confront the threat posed by North Korea, as well as emerging dangers such as maritime security and cyber espionage.
Another challenge is keeping the region’s sea lanes secure for freedom of commerce and navigation. A few days after signing the security pact with Japan, the United States joined more than a dozen allies at the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei to present a united front in developing a clear code of conduct to prevent miscommunication and miscalculation at a time of rising tensions in the South China Sea and other vital waterways.
Stability and prosperity require more than security. A shared commitment to economic growth and innovation is part of why the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is a cornerstone of the president’s economic policy in Asia. This partnership will drive growth and create jobs across the Asia-Pacific region and the United States.
In Bali, Indonesia, we made real progress on reaching agreement among a dozen countries representing 40% of the world’s economy. Over several days of high-level talks, we narrowed differences and reaffirmed the objective of concluding negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of the year.
There are still issues to be resolved, but moving forward is essential. This free-trade agreement will support American jobs and investments by expanding access to markets for goods and services in a region of robust economic growth, setting high labor and environmental standards and protecting intellectual property rights.
The region is poised for economic growth, but that growth must be smart and sustainable. As the planet’s biggest consumers of energy and emitters of greenhouse gases, the nations of the region — including our own — have an enormous responsibility to lead a transformation that puts us on a path toward sustainability.
There are positive signs in that regard. At a port in Indonesia, I met fishermen who are working with researchers in the United States to build sustainable fisheries. Putting climate and clean energy issues at the top of our agenda has led to real breakthroughs. Singapore is the latest nation to join the U.S.-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Energy Partnership, where we are helping to bring clean energy to many of the 387 million people in Asia without power.
We are also opening a regional center for Asia-Pacific Clean Energy in Bangkok, Thailand, to create opportunities for American companies and to facilitate investment in this vital sector.
Sensitive regional issues remain, including the substantial challenges that some of the countries face in protecting human rights. But working through our differences openly and candidly, and signaling our continuing commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, brings our goals within reach.
The rebalancing of our foreign policy priorities in Asia is neither a work completed nor an effort interrupted. It is a daily march of progress to be measured in miles and years, not yards and days. But the march is underway, and America and Asia are stronger because of it.
John F. Kerry is the U.S. secretary of State.